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Nurbakhshism and Shi’ism in Kashmir

By: Dr. Ejaz Husain Malek
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India

A few decades after the death of Sayyid Muhammad Nurbakhsh (1392-1464), the Nurbakhshiya Order gradually achieved great following in Kashmir and Baltistan. Although, Nurbakhsh personally never visited these two places, he was aware of Kashmir’s significance as an early Islamic outpost in Southern Asia with connections to the Kubraviya order with which he himself was associated. His Pir (spiritual master) Khawaja Ishaq Khuttalan had visited the region with his Pir Sayyid Ali Hamadani some time around 1382-83. Hamadani’s sojourn to Kashmir eventually materialized in the establishment of Kubraviya order in the valley, and Kashmiri Muslims, both Sunni and Shi’i, to this day regards him as Bani-ye Islam (founder of Islam), whose efforts led to the area’s Islamization.
The Nurbakhshi Silsila was introduced to both Kashmir and Baltistan through the proselytizing efforts of Qasim Faizbakhsh’s disciple Shams al-Din Muhammad Iraqi (d. 932/1526), who first arrived in Kashmir in 888/1483 as an envoy of Sultan Husain Bayqara (1469-1506, the ruler of Khurasan (Herat) along with an affectionate “letter of friendship” in which Bayqara had honored Sultan Hasan by addressing him as his illustrious son, and some gifts including a fur-coat of Kesh from his personal wardrobe. Its margins were wrought in gold. Anyone who saw it was amazed by the superb craftsmanship that had gone into its making. The fur coat was studded with twelve buttons of gold. Khawaja Malik Zargar (the goldsmith) had spent six months in stitching in. This emphasizes the fact that the mission was not an impromptu one, but well planned and well thought out on the part of Shah Qasim Faizbakhsh. The fact that the mission occurred at a time when Nurbakhshi influence was on the decline in Central Iranian lands suggests that it was a pretext for spreading the movement to an area likely to be hospitable due to its Kubravi heritage. The introduction and consolidation of the Nurbakhshiya order in Kashmir was thus part planning and part good fortune that fell to the Nurbakhshis on account of historical conditions prevailing in Kashmir towards the end of the fifteenth century.
Shams al-Din Iraqi was, quite unequivocally, the most dynamic propagandist to be associated with the Nurbakhshiya through the course of the movement’s whole history. While lacking the erudition and intellectual depth of someone like Nurbakhsh himself or Shams al-Din Lahiji, Iraqi combined a deep-rooted commitment to the Nurbakhshi cause with a flair for politics that led to worldly successes far in excess of that of the Nurbakhsh himself or his genealogical successors. Muhammad Ali Kashmiri’s biographical account of Iraqi’s life in the Tohfatu’l-ahbab gives us the most detailed first person portrait of the personality of any major Nurbakhshi Sufi. Written expressly for the purpose of immortalizing Iraqi’s missionary activities in Kashmir and Baltistan, the Tohfatu’l -Ahbab is also an important source for many other aspects of Nurbakhshi history.
In terms of the political backdrop, the discussion in this chapter pertains to the Sultanate (Shahmiri and Chak dynasties) and to a small extent the Mughal periods of Kashmir history. The Nurbakhshiya order arrived in Kashmir towards the twilight of the Shahmiri dynasty (1339-1561), when actual power lay in the hands of families of local notables who enthroned and deposed the Sultans based upon their mutual interest and rivalries. In the meantime, a central Asian Muslim presence in Kashmir was first established by Mirza Haydar Dughlat, who forayed into the area as a retainer first for the Mongol Khans of Kashghar and later for the Mughal emperor Humayun (d. 1555). As a commander of Sultan Sa’id Khan of Kashghar the Mirza conquered Baltistan and Ladakh in 1532. He then marched upon Srinagar. Some Kashmiris treacherously acted as his guides. The Kashghar army indulged in large-scale killing, arson, loot and plunder of household goods, property and other materials. They took children and womenfolk as captives to be enslaved. Unscrupulous and extremely irreligious as they were, they converted the Islamic city [of Srinagar] into enemy’s country (daru’l-harb), and considered the shedding of the blood of Muslims as lawful as ‘sucking milk from one’s own mother’s breast,’ says Baharistan-i Shahi. The brutality and plundering of Kashghar army, however, united the local population against the invaders. A call to Jihad was raised by the Ulama. Fortunately for the Kashmiris the rivalries of the leaders of the Kashghar army against Mirza Haider and the eagerness of Kashghar troops to return to their home forced Mirza to patch up a peace with the Kashmiri leaders and to leave Kashmir in May 1533. The invasion of the Kashghar army devastated the agriculture fields of Kashmir. Foodstuffs disappeared and the famine raged for about ten months. However, Dughlat directly ruled Kashmir from 1540-1551, when he was killed through the conspiracies of local nobles. Haider Malik says that Malik Abdal Chak and Malik Regi Chak brought Mirza Haider Kashghari to Kashmir who was in the service of Humayun but was deprived of the good fortune of the service and the company of the emperor. The Chaks, who had been a major faction in internal power struggles throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, declared themselves kings in 1561 and lasted as an independent dynasty until 1586. Kashmir was conquered by the emperor Akbar in 1586 and remained a part of the Mughal Empire until the Afghan conquered it in 1747.
It was during the Sultanate and Mughal periods that Muslims gradually came to constitute a majority of the population in Kashmir. The details of this demographic change have yet to evaluated comprehensively, though it is clear that Nurbakhshi order had considerable impact on the overall process of Islamization. In addition, from the late fifteenth century onward, Kashmir became a battle ground for Islamic sects competing to gain converts from among not only Hindus and Buddhists but also Muslim Kashmiris belonging to rival sects. The Nurbakhshiya was a major player in this rivalry during the 16th century, and interactions between Shi’i-Nurbakhshi Sufis and Sunni scholars reflect the overall environment of South Asian Muslim communities in the period. The initial success of the Nurbakhshiya in the area reflects the relatively open religious marketplace of the 15th and early 16th centuries. Conversely, the eventual decline of the movement to the benefit of the major sects resulted from Sunni Mughal domination in India and the long-range effects of Safavid establishment of twelver Shi’ism as the official religion in Iran. The fate of the Nurbakhshiya in Kashmir thus mirrors general trends in the religious history of the Indo-Iranian world during the late medieval and early modern periods.
In presenting the Nurbakhshiya as a part of the mosaic Kashmiri society in this chapter, I begin with the caveat that the complicated socio-religious history of Kashmir has yet to receive adequate academic attention. My treatment of the subject here is limited to an assessment of the original sources to highlight the Shi’i-Nurbakhshi element in Kashmiri religious, political and social history. The chapter is divided into chronological sections dealing with Mir Shamsu'd-Din Iraqi’s two missions to Kashmir and the movement’s ups and downs post Iraqi’s death. The Nurbakhshiya’s historical evolution in the region follows the pattern of arrival of the movement, a brief period of ascendancy in a highly contested environment, rapid decline under adverse sociopolitical conditions and its final assimilation into Twelver Shi’ism.

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